Van Chronicles – Chapter 2

Getting Into the Music

Life while growing up in the Vale household provided very few mysteries. By the time I was 14, we were living in our fourth house – we consisting of Mom and Dad, my two brothers, and me – in the suburbs of Montreal. It was my mother’s dream house, complete with two-car garage and three bathrooms; the only thing missing was the white picket fence, and I’m sure the only reason we didn’t have one of those is because none of the neighbors had one either.

Musically, we were an upstairs-downstairs family. Downstairs, my parents listened to Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin on the console (which was completely off limits for the kids), while upstairs, behind closed bedroom doors, the younger generation listened to whatever struck our fancy.

In 1962, for my eighth birthday, my parents gave me my first record player – a jazzy little number whose carrying case clipped shut and had a handle, so I could take it around wherever I went. It played 45s, 33s and 78s. Along with the record player came two LPs – 12 Top Hits, featuring “Runaround Sue” and “Big Bad John” and Teensville!, which among its many highlights included the dreamy Johnny Burnette singing “My Special Angel” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” I think it was out of desperation from listening to too much Bobby Vee through the wall that separated our two bedrooms that my older brother gave me my first single: “Cotton Fields” by the Highwaymen.

It was “Cotton Fields” that taught me everything I know about repeat. First I’d repeat it just to hear it again, then I repeated it several times so I could write down the lyrics – a painstaking process in my cramped Grade 3 cursive. It must have taken me 25 listens at least, although to my mother it must have seemed like a hundred, to get it all written out. And from there, my career as a singing stylist with my hairbrush doubling as a microphone and the mirror serving as my audience, I sang that Leadbelly tune for hours. Days. Weeks on end.

That hairbrush later saw me through many a Supremes single, and even when the Beatles blasted into our universe, I was still singing “Stop, In The Name of Love” complete with all the hand moves. My 45 collection grew in relative leaps and bounds with the British Invasion – I liked it all, and as fast as I could earn my weekly allowance, I was down at the store, buying up whatever was on the hit parade – mostly the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but ever the teeny bopper, I had a fair smattering of Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five.

Music was good.

And then one night it got better.

It was one of those late dog days of summer nights in 1969. I’d put my book aside, turned off the lights, and turned on the radio, which was tuned in to CKGM, letting the music play all night long. All that psychedelic hippie stuff that you’d never hear on AM radio would take me into dreamland.

I was just this side of asleep when this song came on. Slowly the voice lulled me back from dreamland, singing about “shalimar, cigarettes and matches in the shops, dry your eyes for Madame Joy, that’s the music all around the room.” I was compelled to listen. It was so odd, the feeling. I had never heard anything like this before – every phrase created a new picture, and I felt like I was hanging on for dear life, while the violins and the voice took me on a journey to a place I’d never been before. That’s about as corny sounding as it gets. But it doesn’t make it any less true. And while the music was going deeper inside, I was being carried off into someone else’s world, a world that belonged to this person singing on the radio, a world he had created, was creating for me right there in that little room, that little bed, that little girl. I had no idea what was happening to me but I knew I wanted more. Who was this guy? I don’t remember anything from the song but the love that loves to love that loves the love or something like that, and, seriously, how was I going to go up to the guy at the record store and say I am looking for a song where the guy goes that loves the love that loves the love. But I was on a mission. I needed more. I needed that album.

The next morning I tried to explain what I’d heard to my older brother, but since it wasn’t Zappa or Captain Beefheart, it was all just wasted air space as far as he was concerned. I managed to cajole my mother into taking me to the mall, but she wasn’t going for a few days. I sat around impatiently, listening to the radio the next night, hoping that the magic would come again. But it didn’t and I still had no idea who or what this was. But I was going to try my loves to love thing and see if that got me anywhere. Perhaps my days with the hairbrush would get me through.

Bless the guy in the store who knew who I meant and got me to the Van Morrison slot in the store. The first of many thank-yous. And the first of countless times I have stood at the same spot in record stores wherever I am, riffling through the goods on hand. And there it was. A black cover with a guy’s picture in the middle of a circle. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical that this air-blown face, looking like he belonged on any other album cover than the one I was looking for, was the guy doing the magic. The back was no help either, giving me no clue to the contents. Was the song in there somewhere? I opted to give it a shot and bought the album with the money that was burning a hole in my pocket. One of the best five bucks I ever put down on anything.

to be continued …

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